As they prepare to release their third album, The Temper Trap are a global band, literally. Formed in Australia in 2005, guitarist Joseph Greer and drummer Toby Dundas now live in London, bassist Jonathon Aherne has moved to Brooklyn with his American wife, and singer Dougy Mandagi, an Indonesian who spent some of his childhood in Hawaii, has just got a place in Berlin.
“Basically we have to sell more records for me to stay in London. It ain’t getting any cheaper,” says Mandagi, whose band’s debut album, Conditions, reached gold status in this country. If you don’t know the name straight away you’ll know their breakthrough single Sweet Disposition, where picked electric guitar loops reminiscent of The Edge’s in U2 mingled with Mandagi’s strange, vertiginous falsetto. It set up home in our top 40 for three months in 2009. “I’d been in London for seven years, I’m going on tour and thought, why should I pay premium price to have a place that I’m never in? Berlin is a city with good culture and good food but it’s a less expensive option.”
If anywhere is home for the group as a whole, though, it’s still London. It’s where they were all based when they signed their record deal, and where they have now built the studio base in which they recorded most of their new music. It’s at Tileyard, just north of King’s Cross, a complex also occupied by the likes of the Prodigy, Basement Jaxx and Mark Ronson. “One time I came out front and there was this Bentley there, parked diagonally, and all these weird-looking kids just sitting there in the rain,” says Dundas. “It turned out Lady Gaga was in.”
The new album, Thick as Thieves, was made in collaboration with external songwriters for the first time, and sounds as though it has appropriately global ambitions. It’s a monster, highly polished, filled with huge, arm-waving choruses that seem designed for the vast venues in which they have previously supported The Rolling Stones and Coldplay. Mandagi’s voice is now less angelic, more powerful, and what the band have lost in subtlety they have gained in big tunes.
Surprisingly for a guitar act, the first song for the album, Summer’s Almost Gone, was made in collaboration with Malay, the American producer known for his R&B work with Frank Ocean and Zayn Malik. “We took him out to Australia. We said, ‘Meet us in Byron Bay,’ so we didn’t have to twist his arm. He was on the next plane,” says Dundas.
“He says he was more of a guitar guy growing up, he just got roped into doing some urban stuff early on in his career,” adds Mandagi. “He was really happy when I walked into the studio. Finally, someone in a band!”
As is traditional for the lead singer, Mandagi, 36, is the most rock starry of the group, with his long hair, tight T-shirt and laconic speech. He’s happy about the gig on the day that we meet, where The Temper Trap are one of a handful of better-known bands appearing at Brighton’s festival for next big things, The Great Escape. They’re on at 5pm (“The early bird special”) which means he can start drinking earlier, as he never touches alcohol before a show.
With a little coaxing, he can be encouraged to talk about his nomadic childhood. “I was born in Indonesia, moved to Hawaii when I was six and back to Indonesia again five years later. When I came to the States, I couldn’t speak a word of English, but when I came back, I’d lost all of my Indonesian. So at this Indonesian school, although I looked like everyone else, that’s where I was being bullied and seen as an outcast. And at that age, kids are at their meanest.”
He could have earned a little respect with his family history. His great-uncle, Arie Lasut, was a geologist who fought against the Japanese in World War II. After the war, during Indonesia’s struggle for independence, he spied on the Dutch colonialists, who shot him dead at age 30. In 1969 the government posthumously named him a national hero.
That does put being a rock singer into perspective. “It makes you think, what the fuck am I doing with my life!” Mandagi jokes. Because of his background, the band are popular in Indonesia too. During a recent promo trip to Jakarta, the city’s legendary traffic made them late for a TV appearance. One phone call later, they had a police escort.
At other points, The Temper Trap’s ride has not been such a smooth one. Their second, self-titled album, a wide-ranging affair that saw them experimenting with busy electronic sounds, was a platinum-selling number one in Australia in 2012 but less successful elsewhere. In mid-2013, founding guitarist Lorenzo Sillitto, a school friend of Dundas’s, told them he was quitting the band and the quintet became a quartet.
“I’d maybe had a sense that there was some unhappiness, but I was surprised that was how he wanted to deal with it,” says Dundas today. “He lives five minutes from me and our wives are best friends so it doesn’t feel like a divorce in any sense. But the process of going through that has definitely brought the rest of us closer together.” Sillitto now manages a solo act who has supported The Temper Trap, Edward R.
We talk about the extra pressure when a band has their biggest hit early on. It’s clear that they feel it. “There are two sides of the coin when you have success. Obviously Sweet Disposition is the song that has taken us to all of these places, but that means everybody expects more of that.”
Of course they wouldn’t confess to working with outside songwriters and sharpening their sound for purely commercial reasons. “It wasn’t something that I sought out, by the way. People came to me and asked if I was interested in doing some writing with whoever. I’d never done anything like that before, so I was super excited,” says Mandagi. So there were no worries that it cast doubt on your own abilities? “No, I didn’t really feel that way. It’s not a problem for me. There should be no stigma about it really. if you get a good song you get a good song. Everybody wins, so what’s the problem?”
Listening to new anthems such as So Much Sky, written in Tanzania within view of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the buzzing energy of Riverina, there are plenty of candidates for another major hit this time. Perhaps Mandagi will soon be able to afford to stop globetrotting and rejoin us in London.
Thick as Thieves is out today on Infectious. The Temper Trap play Sun 12 June at Field Day festival, Victoria Park, E3 (08700 600 100, fielddayfestivals.com)